TA 110 (Mind and Metaphysics)


Commentary 10 (further to Lakoff and Johnson)



ON  EMBODIMENT  (as discussed in Mark Johnson’s ‘Meaning of the Body’)

by Herbert FJ Müller
12 December 2008, posted 20 December 2008



Since what  ‘embodiment’  is intended to mean  did not become clear to me from the book  by Lakoff and Johnson, I have now read a more recent publication by Mark Johnson (The Meaning of the Body, 2007), in which he ties   ‘the aesthetics of human understanding’   to bodily experience.  I found this clarifies the question to some extent, but that it also shows up a few difficulties in the use of this concept, which I will discuss here.   I would be interested in others’ opinions on these questions.


He writes that his aim is to counteract the results of the search for truth which he characterizes as ‘disembodied’, and which I understand as a search for truth without people.   He wants to do this by an emphasis on art (poetry, painting, music) as ‘meaning-making’, an on feeling, which he says has been excluded in analytic philosophy.   He also sees himself working in collaboration, so-to-speak, with some of the Continental phenomenological philosophy.  One can certainly understand his motivation for such an effort.  Analytic and language philosophy have painted themselves into a corner by excluding subjectivity,  from which they can only go into either a still more extreme exclusion of objects as well as the mind, by embracing the ‘analytic metaphysics’  which is illustrated by the work of some of the authors discussed under TA110;  or else into a change of direction such as that contemplated here by Johnson.  It is also clear that the body is important for thinking, which has been neglected in much of philosophy.  


But whether it can be included in the way Johnson proposes is less clear to me.  Consider for instance one of his key statements, taken from the pragmatist John Dewey (1925) :   ‘to see the organism in nature, the nervous system in the organism, the brain in the nervous system, the cortex in the brain is the answer to the problems which haunt philosophy.’ (p.121)    Johnson asserts that this is an ‘exemplary nonreductionist ...’ statement :  I do not understand how he can think that this is not reductionist, since it tries to reduce epistemology to biology.   Johnson writes (p.155) that his ‘oft-repeated mantra’   is this :  ‘in order to have human meaning, you need a human brain, operating in a living human body, continually interacting with a human environment that is at once physical, social, and cultural.’   ‘Dewey’s pragmatist continuity thesis claims that we must be able to move, without any ontological or epistemological rupture, from the body-based meaning of spatial and perceptual experience that is characterizable by image schemas and affect contours all the way up to abstract conceptualization and reasoning.’ (p.176).   


The problem, as I see it, is that these opinions do nothing more than deny  that there is any problem going from the one to the other.   But this is not so; there is no ‘continuity’ as claimed.  If you have a toothache,  the observation, by yourself or by others,  of the inflammation, of the nerve or brain activity, or of your behaviour  that are related to it, is in no way the same as having the pain.     Or :  suppose that   during various mental experiences   you undergo an extensive scanning of your brain (and other bodily) activity, including electrical, chemical and any other possible aspects, which are made objective,  independent of what you experience,   so that you and others can observe them on a screen or in other ways :    none of the details of these observations,  nor any synthesis of them,  can possibly be identical, or continuous, with what you experience subjectively, including your (secondary) observation activity.    Furthermore, it seems to me that the important point for epistemologies is to include subjects, which have been excluded from reality for the last 2500 years, and indeed most fiercely by analytical epistemologists;  the central aspect is not the body of the subjects, but their experience (which includes the experience of their bodies).


Johnson  appears  to base himself on a realistic epistemology, without considering that this implies traditional metaphysics.    Actually he rejects metaphysics - as well as objectivism  - explicitly :  ‘one of the greatest obstacles to a general acknowledgment of the embodiment of mind ... is the persistence of ... the representational theory of mind ... [that] has its source in dualistic metaphysical views’ (p.112).    I quite agree that a   complete de-construction of metaphysics-ontology   is required for a valid access to ‘consciousness’ and the  ‘mind-brain relation’ puzzle :   because metaphysics-ontology is by definition a discipline that deals  with mind-independent reality.   And that in turn excludes, by definition, the mind, which cannot be mind-independent, from reality.    But then he wants, nevertheless, to present ‘the ontological framework that is required for a theory of cognition as embodied’  (p.145), and he talks about ontology a great deal throughout his book,  without mentioning that ontology is a branch of metaphysics and excludes the mind.   


Actually Johnson explicitly denies (Chapter 3) the existence of the  ‘I’  as central organizer, just as analytic philosophy has been doing, in a manner reminiscent of, among others, Crick and Dennett, without supplementing this opinion by showing the need for structuring a self :  to achieve unity of experience and action.    ‘I’ is not a ready-made object  -  and this seems to be the problem, despite his rejection of objectivism  -  it needs to be structured, created, like a work of art  (does a poem ‘exist’ ?    if so, where ?  before, or after, it has been written down ?  printed in an objective book ?)   Despite not being a ready-made object, the subject is in charge, and has to ‘make meaning’.  Suppose you drive a car, who is responsible for safe driving ?   Do you tell the policeman to write a speeding ticket to your environment ?   Or you want to learn to play piano :  is it enough to say that your body wants it,  together with your cortex and piano ?    Even though Johnson claims he rejects objectivism and wants phenomenology instead :  non-objectivity is typically a problem for objectivists, not for phenomenologists.       No one can start thinking from anywhere but his subject-inclusive experience.   And besides, Johnson uses the terms  ‘I’  and  ‘we’  and  ‘you’  frequently throughout his book, without any evident hesitation.   


The underlying fallacy of objectivism is the unannounced (implicit) ontological leap of faith from gestalt-formation to metaphysical mind-independent reality, which includes (and approves) entities like bodies and cortices and environments as real, but not those without prior spontaneous gestalt-formation such as the unstructured matrix of subjective experience and the self-structure that is created within it.  Thus the  -  unintended  -  effect of the  ‘embodiment’  notion is yet another futile attempt to reduce the subject to an object.   The body is supposed to replace the mind, which has been declared persona non grata.    Without further clarification, the term  ‘embodiment’  will remain opaque, like the term  ‘the mind-brain’  which is used  (also as a ‘mantra’, perhaps)  by neuro-philosophers.   The denial of the subject shows most clearly why, despite his emphasis on art and feelings, Johnson’s view is not able to deal with problems like consciousness and the mind-brain relation. 




Johnson, Mark (2007),   The Meaning of the Body.  Aesthetics of Human Understanding.  Univ of Chicago Press.



Herbert FJ Müller
     e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>